When Jorge Perlaza and Diego Chará arrived from Colombia to join the Portland Timbers last year, all they knew about the Pacific Northwest was each other: The two have been friends since Perlaza was 14 and Chará was 12. But soon they found themselves embracing a hard-core soccer culture unlike anything they expected. The first sign was Timber Joey, the chain-saw-toting mascot who cuts off a slab from a giant log after every Portland goal. "Very impressive," says Perlaza, a 27-year-old forward. "In Colombia we don't let chain saws in the stadium!"
Then there was the fan atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field, where the Timbers Army leads a raucous sound track for sellout crowds of more than 20,000 in the self-proclaimed Soccer City USA. "The people here live soccer," says midfielder Chará, 25. "You come here and see the full stadium, something that isn't common in Colombia. We always thought the U.S. was about the NBA and NFL."
Each year the North American fútbol culture grows: With the addition of Portland in 2010 and Montreal this season, Major League Soccer now has 19 teams, up from 12 in '06. And each year more teams are signing talent from abroad, especially Colombia. When MLS's 17th season kicked off last weekend, opening-day rosters included 29 players born in Colombia, more than any other country except the U.S. Colombians have always had a presence in MLS—crazy-coiffed midfielder Carlos Valderrama was a league original—but their numbers have soared recently, with 14 joining since the end of last season.
While Colombia has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1998, the nation still produces quality players. FIFA ranked it No. 5 in the world in international transfers in 2011, and Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola recently called Radamel Falcao of Atlético Madrid the world's most dangerous forward in the box. But talent is only one reason behind the MLS pipeline, according to Diego Gutiérrez, the Philadelphia Union's sporting director. "The Colombian player is coachable and for the most part bilingual, so assimilation is easier," says Gutiérrez, a former MLS All-Star who was born in Bogotá. "And the financial part is big. As [MLS has] grown in resources, [Colombian teams] have gone the other way." Value for money is paramount given the tight salary cap, and Colombians have delivered in MLS. Dallas midfielder David Ferreira was the 2010 MVP, Real Salt Lake's Jámison Olave was the '10 Defender of the Year, and Chivas USA forward Juan Pablo Angel has been the league's most successful foreign Designated Player.
This season Colombians are the top attacking threats for Seattle (Fredy Montero), Colorado (Jaime Castrillón), San Jose (Tressor Moreno), Philadelphia (Lionard Pajoy), Dallas (Ferreira), Chivas (Angel) and Portland. "They help bring a rhythm to the field," says Valderrama, 50, who starred in MLS for seven seasons and counseled Moreno on his move to San Jose. "I'm proud of the Colombians who are helping to make the league grow."
No team has a deeper connection than Portland, which has four Colombians under contract (Chará, Perlaza, defender Hanyer Mosquera and forward José Adolfo Valencia) and a fifth on trial (forward Sebastián Rincón). "In this league it means so much to have a player who's earning his wages and worth every penny," says G.M. Gavin Wilkinson. "We came in as the 18th team, and the best Americans were either extremely expensive or taken. We had to look at other avenues for quality players."
Wilkinson's contact in Colombia is Alejandro Taraciuk, an Argentine agent who works for MLS as a fixer throughout South America. Once Portland decides on a player to pursue, Taraciuk brokers the deal with the player's agent and his Colombian club. The Timbers' relationship with Taraciuk requires trust: MLS is a single-entity league, and Taraciuk has also helped Portland's archrival, Seattle, land Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. "When I expressed concern," says Wilkinson, "he told me, 'What you tell me is your business, and if you're after this player, I'll work to get you that player.' I've never had any problems with his integrity."
Once the Colombians arrive in Portland, a player relations manager is on call 24 hours a day to ease the adjustment. "It's very tranquil here," says Chará, who lives with his wife and two daughters. "There's security, which is important, and the people are very friendly." The Colombians take English classes three times a week, which also helps them fit in. At the Timbers' kickoff luncheon Perlaza walked across the stage and announced in English, "I want to win an MLS Cup." It brought the house down.